By Lynn Arditi
Published March 6, 2016
John Cabral recalls the fear in his son’s voice the day he called from a Florida drug treatment center to say his probation officer was ordering him back to Rhode Island.
His parents had hustled Eric, skinny and drug-sick, onto a plane to The Watershed addiction-treatment program in Boynton Beach. He was in such rough shape that his mother, Susan Terhune, recalls that she was afraid he might pass out before he boarded his flight.
At T.F. Green Airport, as she pressed a ticket into her son’s hand, it never crossed her mind that their rescue mission was a punishable offense.
A month later — after detox, psychiatrists visits and group meetings — Eric was supposed to move into one of The Watershed’s “sober living” houses — 1,400 miles from the familiar temptations back home.
But probationers are supposed to get permission to leave the state. The first time Eric went to The Watershed for treatment he did so. This time, his parents were so frantic to get Eric help that it never crossed their minds the state could order him back.
When Eric called his probation officer in Providence, he was told he’d violated the law. If he didn’t come back to Rhode Island, he could face up to five years in prison.
He came back.
Twelve days later, Eric Cabral was dead. He was 37.
Treatment vs. prison
Rhode Island’s probation rolls are filled with people like Eric Cabral: young men addicted to heroin or prescription opioids who run into trouble with the law.
Nationally, about one-fourth of the adults on probation were convicted of drug offenses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Rhode Island has about 24,000 adults on probation — the third-highest probation rate in the country. Twenty-four percent of them — more than 5,700 adults — were convicted of drug offenses, according to the state Department of Corrections.
The nation’s probation system was created to keep offenders out of prison. If the system functions well, it should “connect people with treatment services” and reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses, said Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy adviser at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York City.
But in Eric’s case, the system did just the opposite.
His parents tried to do the right thing by their son. State officials say probation officers did the right thing by enforcing the law.
John Cabral and Susan Terhune want to share their son’s story in hopes that it can help change how the criminal justice system treats people addicted to opioids and prevent more young people from dying.
The following narrative is drawn from recollections of Eric’s family and a neighbor, police reports, court records, health insurance records and state probation records obtained by his parents from the state five months after requesting them under the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act.
Eric Colby Cabral grew up in a middle-class family in Barrington. His parents divorced when he was 3. His father, who taught high school health education in Fall River, remained actively involved in his life and shared in his upbringing.
Eric was 5 years old when his mother married Steve Terhune, whose family owns a boatyard in Barrington. Eric, a skinny, sensitive kid who loved animals, and the two younger children grew up together in a house with a stay-at-home mom and a basketball hoop in the driveway.
As a teenager, Eric was a whirlwind of energy and a natural athlete — once clocking just over 5½-minute miles for five straight miles in the Barrington Triathlon — but he struggled with schoolwork. He was later diagnosed with ADHD. He was arrested for drinking when he was 14. At Barrington High School, his art teacher once caught him making a marijuana pipe.
Over the years, his parents sought help for their son from psychiatrists, who prescribed Adderall and Clonazepam, a class of sedatives called benzodiazepines. He was in and out of drug-treatment programs: Methadone. Suboxone. Twelve-step programs. “He tried everything,” his father said.
Eric also got in trouble with the law: reckless driving, receiving stolen goods, simple assault, violating a restraining order, felony drug possession. He had served a few months at the ACI in 2006 and 2007 for violating a restraining order, simple assault and drug possession.
He married a young woman who also had a drug problem. In September 2009, undercover police detectives staking out a parking lot off Thurbers Avenue in Providence caught the couple buying heroin.
Eric was charged with felony possession of heroin and conspiracy. He pleaded no contest to the charges, and a Superior Court judge sentenced him to six years in prison, with one year to serve and five years suspended — plus another five years of probation.
During his year at the ACI, Eric called home every week. Then, one week he didn’t call. He later told his mother that he’d tried to jump off a balcony and had been put in solitary confinement for a week.
In 2010, Eric was released on parole to home confinement. He moved back to his mother’s house in Barrington and went to work again at the family’s boatyard, polishing and waxing topsides and chain-smoking. In some ways, he was still the same Eric. He’d even braved a snowstorm to rescue newborn kittens stranded in an outboard powerboat. But his family says his thoughts turned dark.
His half-brother, Ted Terhune, 30, recalls Eric saying more than once: “I’m gonna kill myself before I go back to prison … ”
Rhode Island makes it easy for those on probation to be sent back to prison, according to a panel appointed by Governor Raimondo to study the state’s probation system.
As many as 60 percent of adults who are in the ACI, the study found, were sent there for probation violations.
By January 2015, his parents’ fears about their son’s decline turned to desperation. He’d recently been hospitalized for a heroin overdose. He called asking for help. His mother tried the local addiction treatment program where Eric had been treated before, but their Blue Cross plan had a $1,500 deductible. So she called The Watershed, in Florida, where Eric had spent two weeks in 2014. The Watershed bought Eric a plane ticket and told her, “You just get him to the airport.”
Eric was so sick this time that his mother didn’t even pack him a suitcase, never mind consider waiting for a travel permit from the probation department.
But his probation wouldn’t expire for nearly nine months.
When Eric called his parents to say he was being ordered back to Rhode Island, they were furious. His father says he called and spoke to Adrienne McGowan, the interstate office supervisor at the Department of Corrections, and demanded to know why his son had to leave The Watershed. His mother called, too.
“I begged her not to make Eric come back to Rhode Island,” his mother said.
But they said the supervisor’s answer was the same: He’s in violation of his probation. He has to come back.
State law authorizes corrections officials to exercise “his or her discretion, with the advice of the attorney general” to order a probationer who has left the state to return to Rhode Island.
State corrections officials declined a request for an interview about the case. J.R. Ventura, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, responded in an email that federal mandates governing interstate travel of probationers supersede any discretion in state law.
“If a probationer travels out of state without permission, the probation officer has no discretion but to file a violation. The travel and transfer of probationers from state to state is governed by both state and federal mandates. At that point we are obligated to direct them to return to RI.”
Beth Ann Middlebrook, The Watershed’s in-house legal counsel, said that Eric wasn’t their first client to be pulled out of treatment to answer a probation violation. And she wonders if the stigma surrounding addiction has something to do with it.
“If he were in Florida for life-saving cancer treatment,”she said, “would he have been pulled back to Rhode Island for a probation violation?”
On the first Monday of March 2015, a woman cleaning rooms at Mary’s Motor Lodge in Seekonk knocked on the door to room number 13. When nobody answered, she entered.
Inside, the body of a man lay on the bathroom floor.
Police searched the room and found a pair of jeans on the bed. Inside the pocket was a Rhode Island I.D. card and a pamphlet from Narcotics Anonymous.
The state medical examiner ruled that Eric Cabral had died of “acute fentanyl intoxication.”
Two weeks later, the State of Rhode Island withdrew his probation violation.
WHERE TO FIND HELP
Free 24-hour confidential drug and alcohol helpline 1-866-ALC-DRUG
(run by R.I. Council on Alcoholism and Other Drug Dependence, a program of Phoenix House)
The Providence Center
For a first appointment: (401) 276-4020
Anchor Recovery Community Center
(peer coaching, naloxone training, group meetings)
office: 249 Main St., Pawtucket (401) 721-5100
office: 890 Centerville Rd., Warwick (401) 615-9945
R.I. Health Department
addiction treatment: www.bhddh.ri.gov/SA/application.php
medication-assisted treatment: www.bhddh.ri.gov/SA/medicationTreatment.php
RICARES (R.I. recovery community advocacy group)
243 Main St., Pawtucket, RI
Ocean State Coalition of Recovery Houses
On Twitter: @LynnArditi